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Poison Ivy: The Forest Sorcerer (Part 1)

The plant in these photos is a particularly villainous sorcerer of the forest. One touch can turn you into an itching, blistered, swollen mess. Like any good enchanter, it hides in plain sight by shape-shifting. And the false tales spread about it? They keep you from recognizing it until it’s far, far too late. Its name is Poison Ivy.

First, let’s tackle that fake news.

  • Poison Ivy leaves
    • are not always red
    • and are not always shiny.
    • The leaf edges can be toothless, wavy, jagged, lobed, or have several large teeth.
  • The rash
    • is not contagious.
    • Scratching won’t spread it to unaffected body areas.
    • Folk remedies are not always effective, at least not for me. (Yes, sweet-fern, I’m looking at you!)

True tales:

  • All parts of the plant can cause a rash.

So, how do you recognize it?

  • Follow the old saying, “Leaves of three, let it be.” Translation: if you see a plant with clusters of three leaflets, avoid it. (See photo above.)
  • A true shape-shifter, Poison Ivy can be a vine that climbs trees. Its woody stem can run along the ground and under the soil, sending up green leafy shoots that seem to be separate plants. (See photo above.) And it can even pose as a shrub. Remember to look for those clusters of three leaves!
  • Any flowers are small and yellow-green.
  • Any berries are gray to white.
  • Poison Ivy does NOT have thorns.
  • In fall and winter, the leafless vines still cause a nasty reaction. Avoid vines with hair-like roots sticking out of the bark. (See photo below.)

What kind of armor do you need if you can’t avoid touching it?

  • After finally identifying a bird I’ve been chasing, it’s an awful feeling to find myself ankle-deep in Poison Ivy. By wearing hiking boots and tucking my pants into my socks before I start bird-watching, I’ve saved my legs from my mistakes. (Yes, I look like a dork, but it works!)
  • Remember that the urushiol oil from the Poison Ivy stays on your clothes, your boots, and that ball you kicked into the woods. Thoroughly wash anything that has been in contact with this plant. I’m serious. Urushiol can last for years.
  • If you accidentally touch Poison Ivy or its oil, wash with soap and water, rubbing alcohol, or special cleansers as soon as possible. Immediately is best, but up to one hour after exposure will reduce the severity of the rash.
  • There are lotions that will block the urushiol from getting to your skin, but I have not tried them to see how well they work.

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